Hire Slow, Fire Fast

by Michael Haberman on June 20, 2011 · 4 comments


I don’t think there are too many things worse for a company, especially a small company, than to make a bad hire that is then allowed to hang around forever because management is afraid to act on the mistake they made. So the solution for this is to hire slow and fire fast. In an article she wrote, entitled 5 Rules You Should Eliminate Now, Margaret Heffernan listed “Fire Slowly” as one of the rules that should be broken. She said “Everyone makes mistakes hiring… usually that mistake is obvious in the first 6 months. Do not think you can turn this around. It’s distracting, time-consuming and you will fail. If you goofed, ‘fess up’ and move on.” I could not agree with her more. Often bad hires are kept and they harm morale, productivity, customer relations and who knows what else. The have the potential for becoming your ‘toxic’ employee.  But firing quickly does not mean you fire foolishly.

First however let me address the ‘hire slowly’ side of my equation. I am not a believer in “gut” hiring. To me here are the components of a good hiring process:

  • Understand the culture of the company by understanding the core competencies necessary for anyone to be successful at your company.
  • Understand the job you are trying to fill. Not last years job description but the “right now” job description. This is not only understanding the tasks involved but understanding the competencies necessary to perform that work.
  • Understand the goals of the department the person will be working in. Are you trying to introduce something or trying to make something fit.
  • Construct an interview around that information… yes that means prepare your interview!
  • Interview the candidates. I prefer behavioral interviewing and I ask hard questions.
  • Reinterview the candidates. Multiple interviews are best, even for lower level non-exempt positions. It is critical for exempt level positions.
  • Let the candidates interview some of you.
  • Perform background checks.

Even with that process, however, you will make mistakes. Quite often you will not have made a mistake on ability to do the job, you will have made a mistake on the “fit” of the candidate to the organization. Often that mistake is apparent relatively quickly. If you made your decision based on your “gut feeling” about the candidate the mistake will be apparent even more quickly. Now it becomes a matter of making the decision to let them go. This is where management gets skittish. You may have a candidate in a protected catagory, or the person is a relative of another employee, or management just doesn’t want to admit they made a mistake. So time goes by and things don’t get better. In the meantime other employees are unhappy and they begin to question why management doesn’t do something.

Even though it is time to take action, “fast” does not mean “foolish.” This is where HR comes in. They can look at a situation and make sure the hire was a mistake or if something else is going on. They can determine if it is “fit” or “performance” or perhaps it is discrimination. Perhaps the issue is not the employee but the manager. So you need to take a look at the issues in order to keep from making a mistake. But that does not mean this is a slow process. This does not take months or even weeks. As Heffernan says, it is time to “fess up.” You will probably discover the employee is aware that things are not working out.

A sixth rule that Heffernan says needs to be broken is being stingy on severance. I agree with that one as well and it dovetails quite well with this termination process. Be generous with the severance. Her article suggests a minimum of 4 months. In the long run it is not really all that much money and will be much cheaper than any lawsuit you may have to deal with. Besides you will get a good reputation for being “nice.”

So to sum it up

  • Hire Slow– make measure decisions
  • Fire Fast– realize you made a mistake, admit it and correct it quickly but not foolishly.
  • Be generous with the person. They did not force you to hire them. You are the one that took them out of the market.
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